Sunday, October 26, 2014

On this day in Messianic Jewish history

A cool new blog emerged recently, On this day in Messianic Jewish history, thanks to Messianic Jewish thinker/theologian Richard Harvey.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

On J4J's video and the artwork of Marc Chagall

Like many others, I had a negative reaction to Jews for Jesus's video "That Jew Died for You." I noticed that the website for the video highlights the artwork of Marc Chagall. Since others have also appealed to Chagall's work as a way of understanding the video, I thought the comparison was worth scrutinizing further.
Jews for Jesus's "That Jew Died for You"
First: I don't think anyone believes the video deserves to be compared to Chagall on aesthetic merits alone. Chagall was a brilliant Jewish artist whose work has deeply moved countless people. "That Jew Died for You" is a low-budget film short produced for the internet to drive conversation and scandalize viewers. I understand the comparisons to Chagall as either an implicit defense of the artistic choice to depict Jesus in the Holocaust or as an attempt to associate the video with the power of Marc Chagall's work. In both cases, I think the association fails. Here's why.
Marc Chagall's "White Crucifixion"

One of the things that is immediately striking about Chagall's imagery of Jesus is that it clearly portrays Jesus as a Jew. By making Jesus resemble (both physically and in garb) the Jews from other time periods in history who appear next to him in various tableaus, Chagall presented a startling contrast to traditional Christian depictions of Jesus. By contrast, the J4J video does the exact opposite, portraying Jesus exactly as evangelicals have portrayed him for the last fifty years (down to the colored sash and glowing aura). This befuddling choice undermines the supposed point of the video: instead of being "just another Jew," Jesus is a glowing alien/foreigner from another time and place (and culture?). No tallis or tefillin on Jesus this video, it takes a Nazi to recognize Jesus as a Jew.

Now, to be fair, I don't think Chagall's approach (making Jesus look like any other Jew) would have worked in this medium. After all, in Chagall's work, the primary thing that identifies the individual depicting Jesus as Jesus is the crucifixion itself. This leads me to my next point.

The second thing that I think puts this video at odds with Chagall's imagery is the question of the identification of Jesus's sufferings with the sufferings of the Jewish people. Chagall's works show Jesus being crucified while Jews are being subject to pogroms, etc...equating Jewish suffering with Jesus' suffering. The J4J video shies away from making this equation in the video. Nowhere is this more clear than when Jesus's hand appears from offscreen to help a young Jewish woman who has stumbled. Chagall's work points at that young woman stumbling and says, "Right there--that is Jesus stumbling." This video makes a different claim...which leads me to my third point.

The glowing hand of Jesus is the basis of my third and harshest criticism of "That Jew Died for You." For me, that was the moment at which the video completely shipwrecked itself on an iceberg of religious delusion. The appearance of Jesus' hand helping the girl up deeply betrays the commitment that all true art makes to its viewer, which is to tell the truth. No matter how much Christians might wish that Jesus's hand had reached out to help the stumbling girl headed to Auschwitz, the truth (and the challenge...and the shame) of the Holocaust is that, in the case of the girl at Auschwitz, that is exactly what did not happen. (I say "in the case of the girl at Auschwitz" because there are cases where help DID come from Christians: Corrie Ten Boom's family and numerous other Christians risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Their stories deserve and need to be told, now more than as ever.)

Now I don't think anyone would object to a Christian pointing to Corrie Ten Boom's actions and saying, "There, THAT is worthy to be associated with the hands of the Risen One." However, for Christians, the shame (and challenge) of the Holocaust was that this did not happen more...that so many were silent. The imagined hand of Jesus in this video not only fails to acknowledge this, it not-so-subtly denies it, glorifying an alternative reality which is in actuality a complete fantasy. This is not art, this is a parlor trick and is certainly not worthy of comparison to a true artist like Chagall.

I appreciate the desire to say that Yeshua was not ever present with the hand that persecuted the Jewish people throughout history...and that his presence was always with the hand of help. However, Yeshua bound himself to the actions of his disciples in his world, commanding them to be his hands and feet in a world which, for the time being, cannot see him. The fantasy hand of Jesus at Auschwitz promotes an alternative vision, a form of religion which uses Jesus's image as a panacea to try to cover over the pain and suffering which threatens God's reputation in the world as if to say, "We don't have to look at these things as they really are, because really Jesus makes it better behind the scenes." This is not the biblical picture of redemption; it a false image, one which deserves to be soundly rejected.

In conclusion, I do not believe that the producers or writers of this video seriously believe any of these things I am critiquing. I can believe, however, that the video's writers and producers imagined themselves to be doing something in the vein of Chagall's work. That fantasy deserves the same evaluation I assign to the glowing hand of Jesus at Auschwitz: wishful thinking.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Forward: South Dakota's Tiny Hillel Embraces Messianic Jews

An interesting story from South Dakota's Tiny Hillel Embraces Messianic Jews:

Hanna’s discomfort grew at the start of the fall semester, when another Messianic joined, bringing the membership to three Messianics and two traditional Jews, as two Jewish members had graduated the preceding spring. 
Hanna went to Hunt to discuss his misgivings. 
“I did understand where he was coming from,” Hunt said. “Having two-thirds Messianic Jews on the board of the Hillel is controversial.” 
But Hunt insisted that with so few Jews, they should continue focusing on their shared identity. 
By this point, Hanna was splitting his time between SDSU and the University of South Dakota, where he was working toward a doctorate in social psychology and behavioral neuroscience. He was also preparing to get married. These constraints, along with his dismay at the club’s new direction, moved him to leave B’rith Sholom at the beginning of this school year. 
Hanna also emailed Hillel’s headquarters in Washington about the club’s status around this time, but he received no response. A Hillel representative told the Forward that the organization has no policy on Messianic Jewish participation at its branches and no statement on this issue. 
But Hanna’s departure did result in one change: The remaining members amended the constitution to allow all members to serve as officers. 
“This is just one step to tikkun olam, repairing the world,” Hunt said.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Messianic Jewish synagogue Ruach Israel mentioned on

An article (by Rabbi Emma Gottlieb of Temple Beth David) answering the question "Do you think it's possible to be both Jewish and Christian?" gives three distinct examples of why this not a "black and white question" in the contemporary world. She mentions Messianic Jews under the section on "Jews who come to connect with the teachings of Jesus":
“Messianic Jews” are not considered part of the wider Jewish community). However, Jewish law is clear: once a Jew, always a Jew. Someone who is born Jewish but who converts to Christianity becomes an apostate (in Jewish legal terminology), but they can take steps to return to the Jewish community at a later time should they wish to do so. The Jewish community cannot turn such Jews away, although rabbis may have different requirements for their reentry depending on denominational ideology and understandings of Jewish law.
In what I found to be a very equitable gesture, the article closed with the following statement:
Do you want to learn about another perspective on this question? You can read about the beliefs of a local congregation that belongs to the movement of Messianic Judaism here.
The link is to an article on Ruach Israel's website entitled "What Exactly Is Messianic Judaism?"

A hearty yasher koach to Rabbi Gottlieb and JewishBoston for choosing to delve into the complexity of this question in the modern era and for recognizing the Messianic Jewish perspective rather than demonizing, mischaracterizing, or feigning ignorance.